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Hawaii island considers new ways to control feral pig population

                                Feral pigs eat fries in the parking lot near the boat ramp at Wailoa State Recreation Area in Hilo.
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Feral pigs eat fries in the parking lot near the boat ramp at Wailoa State Recreation Area in Hilo.

As the population of feral pigs on the Big Island continues to grow, county officials and residents are considering a wider range of solutions.

“Like all biological growth, the pigs grow exponentially,” Puna resident and former Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara told the Hawaii Tribune- Herald on Tuesday. “Their numbers have really shot up over the last decade or so. … There have been lava flows that displaced them, there’s been more development in their habitats, there’s been a decline in hunting culture.”

O’Hara said the animals have been particularly bothersome in Puna, where they roam rural subdivisions, causing property damage, injuring pets and more. But, she added, the pig problem is islandwide, and West Hawaii residents also have complained to her about swine.

“So far, the only efforts that have been funded have been people going in and shooting them and taking them to the landfill and composting them,” O’Hara said.

But at Tuesday’s meeting of the Hawaii County Game Management Advisory Commission, Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz presented a multipoint plan — which O’Hara consulted on — for addressing Puna’s feral pigs, ranging from increased traps to sterilization to more efficient corpse disposal.

The plan, Kierkiewicz explained, is a prelude for an eventual solicitation for federal funding to manage the pigs, calling it a “proof of concept,” and saying there is a small amount of county funds — about $120,000 — to be divided among each of the five points in the plan.

The more conventional of the proposed strategies is collectively owned pig traps to be shared among community members — Kierkiewicz noted that traps can cost up to $900, which is prohibitively expensive for many — and a feasibility study of possible siting locations for a feral pig processing facility.

But other solutions were more unusual. One possibility would use a species of insects, black soldier flies, to break down pig carcasses more effectively. While carcasses should be taken to county waste facilities for disposal, more commonly they are left where they are to rot.

Kierkiewicz said the flies not only would be more effective at breaking down corpses, but also would generate a supply of fly larvae, which are protein-rich and well-suited as animal feed.

“Maybe they could be used to raise domesticated pigs,” Kierkiewicz suggested.

Commission Vice Chair Cortney Okumura, who said she was interested in the proposal, noted that black soldier flies have such small mouth parts as to barely eat at all during their roughly 10-day adulthoods. The upshot of this, she said, is that they are unlikely to transmit diseases among humans or animals.

Another possible strategy would be the introduction and distribution of a contraceptive bait, HogStop. A spermicide, HogStop could be administered to feral pigs at bait stations to impede their reproduction.

Commissioner Brian Ley was skeptical about this proposal, saying it “sounds good on paper,” but Hog­Stop needs to be repeatedly administered or else pigs’ sperm counts will increase again. Ley said the idea of distributing HogStop to pigs for their entire lives was unappealing, although Kierkiewicz countered that, hopefully, hunters could ensure that the pigs’ lives would be relatively brief.

O’Hara told the Tribune- Herald that many Puna farmers have been opposed to the use of the contraceptive, but some have changed their tune over time.

“Some people have realized that we can’t trap our way out of this,” O’Hara said.

The final proposed solution Kierkiewicz raised was a “culinary value-added product development”: By collaborating with chefs and the University of Hawaii’s culinary arts programs, the island could develop a market for wild pig meat.

While Commissioner Bob Duerr said “chemical-free” pork is a potentially attractive and lucrative market, this solution seemed to have the most legal complications.

O’Hara said that testing to ensure a specific pig is safe to eat requires that samples be sent to the mainland, a process that takes two weeks or more.

“There is a lot of meat being wasted, and we have a lot of food-insecure communities,” O’Hara acknowledged. “But it is the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations that are kind of holding us back on this.”

O’Hara said what the county needs the most is permanent processing facilities. While there are mobile slaughter units active on the island, she said they aren’t sufficient for a larger-scale wild pork industry.

Meanwhile, as the summer approaches, O’Hara said the pig problem likely will diminish somewhat — she said the animals tend to retreat into the cooler jungles during the hotter months, away from human developments.

But she noted “people are desperate,” explaining that some residents have taken to leaving out dog food laced with sodium nitrate to kill the animals, which she said is an “excruciating” and inhumane death by asphyxiation.

While the Department of Land and Natural Resources last year relaxed hunting regulations in three Puna forest reserves, increasing bag limits and allowing for hunting seven days a week, O’Hara, whose property abuts one of those reserves, said those changes have not had a noticeable impact on the problem.

“I haven’t seen any reduction of pigs since the new rules,” O’Hara said.

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